Exercising one’s rights in the blogosphere: A conversation with Bob Cox, founder of the Media Bloggers Association

Blogging can be more than expressing your thoughts online. When a blogger focuses on political or media issues, their content can make headlines – and leave them open to threats and legal challenges. Bob Cox, founder of the Media Bloggers Association and a blogger at TheNationalDebate.com, took a few moments to discuss some of the important legal issues facing media bloggers, and what he’s doing to help.

DANA GREENLEE: You’ve recently started the Media Bloggers Association – of which I’m a member. What inspired you to start it?

BOB COX: It’s an association of bloggers who focus on the media — but the definition of ‘media’ can be pretty broad. We actually have the member applicants defining and determined ‘media.’ The organization was started at BloggerCon 3 (www.bloggercon.org), David Weiner’s event at Stanford, on Nov. 6, 2004. It was founded with 28 bloggers and we’ve now grown to be several hundred. [We’re] adding 50-100 new bloggers a month — so we’re growing rapidly. I attended BloggerCon 2 at Harvard and there was a lot of interesting discussions about threats to bloggers and the future of blogging and journalism issues. I came to it with my own colored glasses running my site TheNationalDebate.com where, just a few weeks before, the New York Times attempted to shut down my Web site because they had objected to something I posted about them. This really highlighted the need for bloggers to get together and help each other.

GREENLEE: Why do we need the Media Bloggers Association? Is there something on the horizon that could create a legal or regulatory environment that we need to start an organization to represent that community?

COX: I was recently in Nashville where the Media Bloggers Association ran an event called BlogNashville. One of the discussions was about protecting bloggers—legal issues, repressive government issues – we have foreign bloggers—and that really crystallized some of the thinking we had as an organization. We think it’s great that we can express ourselves, [that we have] the freedom to say what we want to say on our soapbox and reach a wide audience. But just saying that isn’t going to be enough because there are enough forces moving out there that are trying to reign in blogging, box it in, control or regulate it. There are a lot of people that are actually directly threatened by the ability of any person to very quickly get out there and be able to speak their mind. You see that now, for example, with what’s happening with the Apple case and their effort to say that bloggers aren’t entitled to Shield Law protections, although the court hasn’t actually ruled on that yet. You see it with what the FCC is doing about maybe regulating political speech. You see it in San Francisco, where [the city] considered regulating blogs under its election laws. You see it in media organizations coming after bloggers. I had my own case with the New York Times. We developed a media initiative for the bloggers at Media Bloggers Association to help defend the bloggers and we took on our first case, which is a newspaper in Oklahoma trying to shut down a blogger who they disagreed with on some political topics and they tried to use bully boy tactics to shut them down or shut them up. If we don’t organize and speak up for ourselves, we’re going to have a bunch of other people out there who are going to start defining us – and they’re not going to define us in ways that we like.

GREENLEE: There is an area of concern that bloggers don’t always investigate what they write about. Critics have really jumped on the fact that information comes out so quickly, bloggers don’t always properly investigate information before it is reported in the blogs.

COX: There are good bloggers and bad bloggers in the sense of being responsible and not being responsible—just like there are good and bad anything: attorneys, businesspeople, journalists. We’re certainly not looking to be in the business of defending bloggers that are guilty of defamatory conduct or violating copyright. That needs to be respected. Blogging doesn’t make the laws of this country go away. Our concern is for people who didn’t do any thing wrong but are being pushed around or made to feel like they did, and don’t know any better or don’t know how to push back. I think the best thing we can do is education and training. We offer computer-aided research and reporting training, a two-day boot camp to give journalism training to bloggers. Recently, I made an informal agreement with the Poynter Institute where we’re going to start developing content for an initiative they have called News University. They’ve been developing online curriculum to teach journalists how to do certain things, and we’ve agreed to start developing content that is specific to bloggers and put that into their system to develop a sort of MBA to teach bloggers about what is fair use, how copyright and libel laws impact your site and about how RSS feeds work.

You can learn more about the Media Bloggers Association at http://www.mediabloggers.org.